Midpoint Review and Rethink: Can We Change Their Lives?

“Dear volunteer, this is Terry Chenyu Li, the coordinator of the Pujiang New Citizen Life Center 4 (NCLC4) Program. Welcome to our team! …”

This is the format of the emails that I have been sending for the past two weeks. As the coordinator of the summer English program at a community center in south Shanghai, I have to notify the volunteers about their teaching times and give them directions to the center. The NCLC4 program is the distant program from the city center. Volunteers have to spend 30-50 minutes on the subway and 15 minutes on the bus to reach the school. Since most volunteers are foreigners, I try to accompany them on their first teaching days to make sure they can get to the center on time. I usually take advantage of this commute time to investigate volunteers’ motives. This is of great interest to me because of one of the classes that I took in my year abroad at University College London. In this class titled “development geography”, I learned the importance of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and volunteerism, and some of the problems associated with them.

New Citizen Life Center 4 (NCLC4) in Pujiang Town. south Shanghai
New Citizen Life Center 4 (NCLC4) in Pujiang Town. south Shanghai

One of the benefits of volunteerism is that it can build mutual understanding between different cultures. Some of our volunteers are foreign students and expats. They live in gated communities and thus have little contact with local communities. One of their motives for volunteering is to “get to know the people better”. Many of them have never heard the terms “migrant children” or “hukou” before. After participating in our program, they become aware of the social injustice in Shanghai. Some of the volunteers are so inspired that they decide to join Stepping Stones. For example, Oliver Pointer, our current training manager, had volunteered with two of Stepping Stones’ programs before he joined Stepping Stones.

Many Shanghai high school students also choose to volunteer with us during the summer. Most public middle and high schools do not admit non-Shanghai citizens, also known as migrant students. For those who do, they usually have separated classes for them. As a result, most Shanghai middle and high school students do not have close contact with migrant children. By volunteering with us, these students develop their understandings of this “unknown community” who build the skyscrapers, clean up the streets, feed the people, and drive the subway. Given that these students could have a great impact on the future of Shanghai, they could, in time, alter the prejudice against migrants and possibly be part of the force that abolishes the hukou system. Therefore, their participation is especially important.

Some of the volunteers at NCLC4. Oliver is the tall man standing in the center-left. I am on the very right.
Some of our volunteers and students at NCLC4. Oliver is the tall man standing in the center-left. I am on the very right.

Working at Stepping Stones also provides me with the opportunity to interact with other NGOs in Shanghai. One that Stepping Stones closely works with is Shanghai Young Bakers (SYB). The French-initiated SYB provides free nine-month bakery training lessons to disadvantaged youths from rural China. SYB adopts the “alternance” concept, meaning that their students spend two weeks of classes at school and two weeks of practical internship at international hotels for the whole duration of the program. Since English is one of the working languages at these hotels, Stepping Stones offers free English classes to SYB students. When I attended SYB students’ graduation on July 15th, I was surprised to see that all SYB students, who had variable knowledge of English before coming to Shanghai, were able to give fairly informative personal statements in English. They even delivered two short dialogues based on their daily conversations. During the graduation ceremony, I talked to interns, volunteers, and staff from SYB. I could feel that they are very passionate about their jobs. They believe that this nine-month training could change many of the students’ lives. However, after talking to one of the training managers at SYB, I realized that the impact might be much less than many people anticipate. The manager suggested that the first ten years of working in bakeries or hotels is a tough time. Only those with dedication and talent would remain in this industry. Some of the students may choose to work in other fields or return to their hometowns, and many of them will remain economically vulnerable in the society.

John is a graduate from SYB. He interns at the Renaissance Yangtze Hotel in Shanghai.
John is a graduate from SYB. He interns in the Renaissance Yangtze Hotel in Shanghai.

This seemingly disappointing opinion exemplifies a real problem of NGOs that I learned from “development geography”: as long as the social structure remains unchanged, NGOs can scarcely change the lives of the poor. The disadvantaged will remain disadvantaged. In China, NGOs have little effect upon the structure of the society. They do not want, nor do they dare, to challenge authority.

If NGOs can scarcely change society, why do we still do what we do? How can NGOs be improved? We had a discussion regarding these questions among Stepping Stones staff on July 16th. We discussed the possibility of turning Stepping Stones into a “social enterprise”. If we provide the same level of English education as educational corporates do, why don’t we charge our students for some of our programs? We could use the money to expand our programs and to help those who cannot afford them. Social enterprise is a possible solution to the sustainability of NGOs, expanding their influence and alleviating social injustice, yet it still cannot fundamentally solve the injustice that is deeply rooted in the local structure of society. This links back to one of my previous points: by raising young Chinese people’s awareness towards the unfair treatment of migrant children and involving Chinese youth in this force for change, we can probably influence the future of China.

I am glad that by the halfway mark of my internship at Stepping Stones, I have met so many passionate people at various occasions. I have explored my studies of NGOs in real life, and real life has raised new questions for my studies. I am sure I will learn more in the next few weeks at NCLC4 and Stepping Stones. The weather is getting unbearably hot in Shanghai, but I am in love with the city and what I am doing here.

I am ending this blog as the format of my emails always end:

“Should you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me.


Terry Chenyu Li”

Injustice and Hope behind the Glamorous Shanghai

My internship is in what I consider to be one of the most exciting cities in the world. The skyscrapers in Lujiazui point their needle-like rooftops to the sky. Hundreds of thousands of cars run across Puxi on the Yan’an Elevated Road. If you drive slowly on the elevated road, you could spot some of Asia’s most expensive real estates in the former French Concession. Yes, this is Shanghai, a city known for its rapid urbanization and its splendid lifestyle. However, behind the shiny office buildings and luxury shopping malls lies the institutional discrimination against migrant workers and their children. The Hukou system restricts non-Shanghainese’s access to the social welfare in Shanghai, such as free public education and healthcare. Many migrant schools were established to provide education for migrant children. In recent years, the Shanghai municipal government has integrated migrant schools into the public education system and has allowed migrant children to join public schools. Nevertheless, many migrant students still have learning difficulties, especially in English. Schools in many other provinces only offer English to students from the third grade and above. Meanwhile, schools in Shanghai offer English from the first grade. Thus many migrant children cannot catch up with the class assignments. In addition, most of the migrants have little knowledge of English, so they cannot provide sufficient assistance with their children’s English studies. As a result, migrant students are in relative disadvantages when competing with Shanghai students.

Stepping Stones aim to help these migrant children with their English studies. It runs English programs in numerous migrant schools and community centers across Shanghai. All the teachers are volunteers. Some of them are foreign expats, some are exchange students, and some are passionate Chinese. Their main tasks are to help migrant children with their spoken English and to increase their interests in English. As an intern, my task now is to assist Professor Friederlike, a German Professor, to investigate the feedback from teachers, parents, and students.  Professor Friederike used to be a volunteer at Stepping Stones. She is interested in how the English program has changed the children’s perception of English, how the program has changed their grades, and how it could be improved. She is also interested in the Chinese people’s perceptions of NGOs and migrants’ living conditions. Her research topics are in my interest as well, and I learned quite a lot from our conversations with teachers, parents, and students.

Tangsi Elementary School in Pudong, Shanghai. 999 migrant children study there.
Tangsi Elementary School in Pudong, Shanghai. 999 migrant children study there.

We have spoken to four English teachers, one parent, and more than ten students at two schools and two community centers. Their feedback is all positive. When asking what is their definition of “volunteer”, they tell us that volunteers are warmhearted and benevolent people who are willing to help those who need assistance. Students enjoy the classes taught by volunteers. These classes have greatly increased students’ interest in English. A teacher from Tangsi Elementary School tells a story about a student from the second grade. The student used to be sleepy in her English class, but he is now very active in the English classes taught by volunteers. In these classes, students not only can consolidate their English studies, they can also gain new perspectives of the outside world. For instance, volunteers introduce western festivals to the students, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. The children have the opportunity to experience these festivals in their classrooms, and the experience has inspired them as well. One of the students that we interviewed hopes that China will adopt Thanksgiving and make it a day for children to thank their parents.

Although government regulations are unfair and the prejudice against migrants is rooted in some local people’s minds, you can still see that many migrants enjoy their lives. Living in this mega-city can mean that it is hard to find the sense of belonging, yet migrants have discovered and developed their own communities. Moreover, they have not given up their dreams. The students are confident about their future. They talk about going to colleges in the US, becoming a lawyer, and teaching English abroad. What really impresses me is that the migrant students from Tangsi Elementary School donate money to a school in the relatively underdeveloped Anhui Province every March. They believe that even though they are not rich, they still need to help those who are poorer than them. I am moved by their kindness, and I am glad to see that such spirit is still powerful among the so-called “selfish and spoiled generation” that is the Chinese youth nowadays.


View from Stepping Stones' office, with the skyline of Xujiahui in the back.
View from Stepping Stones’ office, with the skyline of Xujiahui in the back.


In the following weeks, I will be one of the program coordinators at a local school, so I will interact with the volunteers and the students more closely. I am looking forward to that, and I hope I can learn even more about social works and social justice. Everything is changing rapidly in Shanghai, and I am glad to be part of the change.


Terry Chenyu Li

Learning to Teach: Midway point at the SJDS Biblioteca

It’s funny to remember how before I left for Nicaragua two months seemed like a long time.  Now that I’m here, I’d do anything to have more time.  A week after I arrived, another volunteer came down who was also interested in teaching English.  Together, we have set up English classes and are currently teaching three classes: beginner, intermediate, and advanced that are each offered twice a week.  English classes are provided in the schools in town; however because there is only one teacher for all of the schools the children do not end up getting a lot of English instruction.

Within the past twenty years or so, San Juan del Sur’s primary revenue has shifted from fishing to tourism so now more than ever learning English is an incredibly useful skill for students to have.  In the beginning, the English teacher recommended students for our English class.  Students were recommended based on the fact that they were struggling in school; however as word spread, students brought their friends or others who wished to learn English.

One of my main internship goals was to improve my Spanish.  It’s one thing to stumble over your words when speaking with your host family and another doing it in a classroom full of your students.  This made the first couple of days of teaching a bit overwhelming.  However, I soon realized that it doesn’t matter if I have perfect Spanish because the students are all here to learn English.  Plus some of my students really got a kick out of getting to correct me, their teacher.

We are now starting our fourth week of class, and I can really feel my confidence growing.  At this point, I have no problem speaking Spanish in front of a classroom full of 25 students.  Whether explaining instructions, grammatical rules, or simply asking the students to quiet down, I really feel like I am able to lead a class.  I try to speak English as much as I can with the students, but there are some students who need extra help and often require information to be repeated in Spanish.

Helping a student in the intermediate class

I’m most proud of developing my leadership skills and with the trust I have begun to build with many of the students.  At the beginning of classes, many of them were too shy or embarrassed to admit they needed help but now students have no problem asking their questions.  I have worked very hard to make sure students feel comfortable and safe in the classroom.  Now seeing them feel comfortable joking around or just talking to me is very rewarding.  With each class, I get to know more about each of the students and their individual learning needs.  I only wish that I had more time to spend with them.  Since this is such a small town I often see students outside of the classroom.  I love it when one of them takes the time to shout to me and say hello.

Part of my internship learning goals include improving my communication and leadership skills within a classroom setting and to practice my Spanish language skills.  So far, almost every day has provided an opportunity for me to hone these skills.  Since I am living with a Nicaraguan family and most of my co-workers only speak Spanish, I feel myself getting more and more comfortable with the language.  Considering I intend to use my Spanish language skills in whichever career path I end up choosing, the practice I am getting now is extremely beneficial.

My co-teacher and I have been responsible for creating our own lesson plans in which we try to provide a mix of vocabulary, grammar, and conversational skills that are appropriate for the ability level in each class.  Being an Education major, learning how to construct a lesson plan and thinking about the types of activities that are feasible and effective in the classroom will help me if I choose to pursue a career in teaching.

The independent nature of this internship has given me a lot of freedom to explore my interests and grow as both a teacher and an individual.  As I continue teaching, I look forward to discovering what other surprises and challenges the remainder of the summer will bring.

The verb of the day. During each class, students learn a new verb and practice conjugating it into different sentences.